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Local Chef: The Mystery of Success

In the culinary field, the secret weapon that can propel students to the top of their class, turn TV neophytes into a media stars, or give aspiring chefs the chance to run their own kitchens is something called the "Mystery Basket"

The Mystery Basket usually contains an amalgam of ingredients, some mundane and some exotic, that the culinary student, food channel contestant or the chef who is auditioning for a job in a restaurant must turn in to a balanced, creative menu within a certain amount of time.

Many of us have encountered our own Mystery Basket when we open our kitchen cabinets and refrigerators to find fruits, vegetables and groceries that we just had to buy staring at us, just pleading to be cooked before they lose their luster.

In our house I am often confronted by produce drawers popping with my wife Catherine's over eager shopping sprees at the farmers market or cabinets full of interesting ingredients picked up at an ethnic bazaar or specialty food shop.

One of my favorite adages is that if necessity is the mother of invention, then inspiration must be its father. When we are confronted with a refrigerator full of food at home we can learn a lesson from the professionals in our approach to our Mystery Baskets.

What I usually do when confronted by this challenge is line the ingredients up on the kitchen counter and start an internal debate about just how to prepare them. It is then that the creative juices start to flow. Should I slice those beautiful beefsteak tomatoes we got at the farmers market and serve them as a salad, turn them in to a salsa or broil them to serve warm before they pass their peak. Those pretty purple heirloom fingerling potatoes that we bought last week could be boiled and dressed with some of that great extra virgin olive oil and Champagne vinegar that we found at that specialty shop a few months back, added to a simmering stew, or roasted with rosemary and shallots before their eyes get any bigger. And that wonderful artisanal blue veined goat cheese that we savored, but some how temporarily forgot, should be folded into pasta or crumbled on top of a salad before it really starts to take over the refrigerator.

The next time that you are put to the test approach your Mystery Basket like the professionals do. When it is necessary to clean up the larder let inspiration take the lead, you might even surprise yourself and family with your culinary inventions.


The first thing to do is forage in you refrigerator and kitchen cabinets for whatever vegetables you have that need to be used up. These can include, but of course are not limited to potatoes, onions, peppers, zucchini, carrots, garlic, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and the like. Wash, peel if necessary and dice them into one inch cubes. Separate the more fragile vegetables like zucchini or cherry tomatoes that need less cooking time. Toss in olive oil to coat, season with salt, fresh pepper and rosemary, spread in one layer in a roasting pan and place in a pre-heated 400* oven. Cook 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding the more fragile ingredients when the others are about halfway cooked. You can serve these hot from the oven or at room temperature.

----- Philip McGrath owns and operates the Iron Horse Grill, which is housed the historic former train station building in Pleasantville. He also owns Pony Express To Go, an all natural fast food restaurant just across the park from the Iron Horse. You can learn more about both by visiting their websites at and . His Local Chef column appears here weekly.

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